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Q&A – Stuart Hooper: My mission to make Bath attack and be the envy of the Premiership

Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper

Bath first-year director of rugby Stuart Hooper tells NEALE HARVEY how he’s coping with the current shutdown while attempting to plan ahead.

We’re in uncharted waters with current global health crisis, what’s been the most challenging part for you at Bath?

It’s come at a time where not being able to be physically connected with the players and staff is really difficult. Normally at this point of the season you’re massively involved in striving for the play-offs and it’s an exciting time. You’ve got your international players back and are really trying to push on, so that’s hugely frustrating and it’s also the time of the season where people are preparing to move on from clubs and you’re finalising signings for the following season. All these things have been disrupted and conversations you want to be having face to face with people are now being done on the phone or by a video call. Not having that human connection is very challenging.

In common with most clubs your guys have accepted significant short-term pay-cuts. How have they handled that?

Everyone across the club has been amazing in the way they’ve dealt with it. The players are the guys who tend to get the headlines but the rest of our staff have been exemplary in their understanding and acceptance of why things have needed to change from an outgoings perspective. Let’s be clear, nobody wants to get paid less money – players or staff – but everybody’s been willing to help the club and we’ve got to a point where we can manage this situation.

How supportive have owner Bruce Craig and CEO Tarquin McDonald been to you?

Incredibly so. They’re both aware how this affects the rugby department, which is where I come in, but it also affects the whole business and the commercials there, so I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of how they’re allowing me to continue running things. We’re dealing with situations I’ve never had before and it doesn’t matter whether it’s your first year as a DoR or your 20th, it’s unprecedented.

High-profile players like Freddie Burns, Henry Thomas, Matt Garvey and Will Chudley are out of contract. Where are you with recruitment and retention?

We’re getting there. The World Cup pushed everything back anyway and Covid-19 has had a major effect. We’re not finished, but we’re close to being finished and I’ve always been pretty open with the fact that I’ll speak to all the relevant players first and when we decide the best time to announce things, we will do so. We’ve got some people leaving, as everyone does, but out of respect for those guys it’s important I speak to them face to face where possible.

Bath duo Stuart Hooper and Freddie Burns
Moving on: Freddie Burns will be leaving Bath and the Premiership for Japanese club rugby. Michael Steele/Getty Images

Freddie Burns revealed last week that he is off to join Tokyo-based Shokki Shuttles in Japan’s Top Challenge League. Presumably it’s down to his lack of game time? 

I’ve really enjoyed working with Fred and we had some very open conversations. Freddie’s a quality player who would like to have played a lot more than he has, but that applies to lots of people at the club. High-achieving sports people – and Fred is one of those – want to perform on the field but, ultimately, I pick the team and the fact he’s not been starting or playing much is down to my decision. I can understand why he’s found that frustrating.

You’ve been linked with Saracens pair Ben Spencer and Alex Lozowski and now Aussie fly-half Matt Toomua. Where are you with recruitment?

We always seem to get mentioned in the same sentence as some pretty high-profile players but we’ve had a very strategic approach to recruitment. Last summer we bolstered our pack and the success of that has been evident, but this year we’ve probably not focussed as much on the pack and are making some good headway with the signings which will be announced soon.

Regardless of new signings, it looks like younger, homegrown players across the Premiership will get a chance to shine. Is that the same at Bath?

We’ve had lots of people come through the system and a few guys have really had an opportunity this season like Josh Bayliss, Gabe Hamer-Webb and Tom de Glanville. There’s a good crop come in this year and that’s a big part of what we want to do. We want to be 50 per cent homegrown by 2023 and that means giving guys opportunities to kick-on and them taking it. There’ll be more opportunities for guys at the back end of this season, whenever that is.

How good a prospect is Hamer-Webb on the wing?

His try-scoring exploits have been tremendous and everyone’s seen that side of him, but what we also see is a young man who’s committed heart and soul to this club. He’s had an incredible impact on our first team, on and off the field, and he’s one of those guys who works incredibly hard during the week to put himself in the best position to play at the highest level. He’s a real joy to work with and I’ve got a whole lot of time for Gabe – we’ll see a lot more of him, for sure.

Bath wing Gabe Hamer-Webb
Livewire: Homegrown Bath wing Gabe Hamer-Webb. Michael Steele/Getty Images

Who else do you see emerging in your first team now?

I hope Josh Bayliss will really kick-on, and somebody we haven’t seen a lot of because he injured his knee in the first game of the season is another back row in Miles Reid. He’s a quality player who’s going to get a lot of game time and is very much somebody to look out for. Ollie Fox has played a bit at No.9 and impressed for England U20s last year and we’ve got guys who are just finishing school like fly-half Orlando Bailey and prop John Stewart who are going to be a big part of this club. These guys are embedded in the squad now.

There’s been chat around reducing the Premiership salary cap with Bath reportedly against that. Where do you stand personally?

Any decisions taken on that at board level take quite a bit of work to bed in and the current system has been going for a while now. We need to do what’s best in the interests of the game long-term and at Bath we’re working within the current cap and are working hard to ensure we keep a competitive squad that can challenge at the top.

Sounds like you want to keep things as they are, so does that include marquee players as well?

We’re in favour of the marquee player because it allows those quality players to be in the Premiership, which is a good thing. We want to see the best players and we want the Premiership to be the best club competition in the world, so we need to make sure we maintain that. It doesn’t necessarily mean you inflate the market across the board but we do need to make sure we stay on top of that and do what’s in the best interests of the whole game, not just one or two clubs.

Are you expecting all new signings to be on board come July 1?

It’s something we’re working on with PRL at the moment and it needs to be universal. At the moment, our understanding is players will swap clubs in accordance with new contracts but it has to be the same across the league and it needs to be confirmed pretty quickly.

Aside from the Covid-19 crisis, how have you been enjoying your first year in the Bath hot-seat?

I love it. It’s a challenge and this year has thrown up a bit more outside the norm, but I’m relishing the responsibility that comes with all of that and I actually thrive on it. With the support I’m getting from all the guys at the club, I’m just keen to get back playing again.

You’ve given some young coaches in Luke Charteris, Mark Lilley and Ryan Davis their heads. How pleased have you been with them?

These guys have been awesome. They really took on the challenge and were all given a lot of responsibility early on, purposely, and they’ve all worked really hard with Neal Hatley and Girvan Dempsey to drive a strong programme with the players. They love it, they’re enthusiastic and they saw some good rewards over the first half of the season.

Pleased to have had Hatley back as your right-hand man?

I worked with him before and kept in touch with him when he was coaching England so he’s come back with some real energy and he’s got a huge desire to help the lads improve and grow. He’s a really experienced coach who’s been around the club and international game for a long time so he’s been invaluable to the work we’ve done this year. He challenges me and I encourage all the guys to do that because that’s the environment you want to have. If there isn’t that challenging culture it’s a false harmony because what we’re trying to do is really difficult and there wouldn’t be enough stimulation of thought, but these guys are certainly providing that!

One area that hasn’t really functioned is your attack. As you alluded to earlier, presumably that’s a focus of your recruitment?

For sure. We want to score more tries and be exciting with ball in hand so that’s something we’re working through in how we train and the players we have on the field. We’ve already brought in Cam Redpath for that reason.

You’ve had a lot of players coming and going with England. That can’t help when it comes to honing an attack?

It’s important we can cope with it. We want English players who aspire to play at that level and you can see that with someone like Cam. We want him to grow and become an England international, but as a club we must become more robust and have a good understanding of how we want to play regardless of who’s available – then when guys like Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and others come back from England, they can fit in straight away and express themselves in a Bath jersey.

England and Bath full-back Anthony Watson
Top dog: Anthony Watson has shown himself to be crucial to England’s back three. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Surely the long-term answer must be a better season structure with clearly defined club and international windows?

It would be great to separate them so Bath supporters could see the best players playing in the best games and for those players to then have time to go away and play for their country. It needs to be done properly and it needs to be done globally to be the best at all levels.

Away from Bath, how sad have you been to see the decline of your old club Yorkshire Carnegie?

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was playing at Headingley in front of big crowds and we won the Powergen Cup at Twickenham. I’ve got a real attachment to the club and great memories so it’s really tough to see where they are now, but I think Phil Davies going back there now is a good thing. With relegation to National One confirmed and having changed the name back to Leeds, hopefully they can start the rebuilding process and kick-on because Yorkshire is a tremendous hotbed of rugby talent. Doncaster are alone in flying the flag for Yorkshire in the top two divisions now but I hope Leeds can have a strong season and get back up there.

Where do you stand on promotion and relegation given the current state of the Championship?

We need to look at the competitions profile in the current situation. There’s a lot to consider in terms of how the Premiership and Championship look and how promotion and relegation fits in with that, so I would wrap all of that into a conversation around what’s best for the game now. You can include season structure in that as well.

Eddie Jones recently suggested that versatile players would become king. What do you say to that?

I agree with him and it’s something I’ve looked at across our squad. Some of Eddie’s suggestions are probably more radical than I would see straight away but players who can play 10, 12 and 15 or 13, 14 or 15 are increasingly valuable. Some back rowers could probably play in the back-line and I think it’s something that will evolve quite quickly as squads potentially become leaner. At Bath, we’ve got quite a few second and back rows who can interchange and some of our back rows can play across the line there as well, so it’s important we’re versatile and can put out the best 23.

To the neutral observer the scrum has become a mess, what can be done to tidy things up?

We’re always having conversations with referees because lads don’t want continuously reset scrums and neither do people watching. For me, simplifying things is key and while we all want to see a contest, we also want the ball in and out so we can play some attacking rugby. The scrum needs to remain an important part of the game, but from a spectator point of view it needs to become cleaner than it is right now. There’s currently a big deficit in penalties against looseheads so we need to work out why that’s happening and the whole process needs to be more consistent.

Finally, we’re seeing some football clubs training again, are you hopeful Bath can get back soon?

When it’s safe to do so we’d certainly like to move on to the next stage. Guys are at home on their own at the moment so the next stage will be getting back to Farleigh House, training at distance within our own environment and taking things from there. But this is not something you ever plan for because the impact of coronavirus on a global basis is massive.

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